- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The U.S. made two key terrorism designations Wednesday, casting a spotlight on the al Qaeda affiliate organizations in the Middle East and North Africa that increasingly have replaced the Afghanistan and Pakistan-based network built by Osama bin Laden as the focus of global security concerns.

In a move that seemed designed to refocus attention on the expansionist aspirations of al Qaeda-linked groups operating in Syria — specifically the al-Nusrah Front — the State Department added the name of a key leader of a Lebanon-based faction to the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list.

Usamah Amin al-Shihabi was recently appointed the head of Syria-based al-Nusrah Front’s Palestinian wing in Lebanon, the State Department said, noting that “al-Nusrah Front was formed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in late 2011 as a proxy for AQI’s activities in Syria.”

Separately, the department said another group, which recently split from the North Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would be added to the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. The al-Mulathamun Battalion, the department said, “became a separate organization in late 2012” and soon thereafter claimed responsibility for January’s deadly attack on an Algerian natural gas plant.

Three U.S. citizens were among at least 38 civilians killed when heavily armed gunmen attacked the facility, which is owned by BP and Norwegian and Algerian interests.

U.S. officials said that in splitting from AQIM, al-Mulathamun’s leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, issued a public statement in which he threatened to fight Western interests and announced the creation of a sub-battalion, whose name translates in English as “Those Who Sign in Blood.”

Further, according to Wednesday’s announcement by the State Department, the al-Mulathamun Battallion cooperated with a previously designated terrorist group — the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa — to carry out twin suicide bombings in Niger that left at least 20 dead.

The two groups have merged under the name al-Murabitoun, the department said in a statement, which added, “The newly formed al-Murabitoun extremist group constitutes the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests in the Sahel.”

Such developments highlight what several lawmakers, analysts and intelligence community sources have told The Washington Times during recent months is a major new chapter in al Qaeda’s evolving story — one in which a host of the original terrorist network’s offshoots are gaining money, lethal knowledge and a mounting determination to strike the U.S. and Western interests.

In September, sources told The Times that intelligence dating back to the summer and fall of 2012 pointed to a reality that al Qaeda in the post-bin Laden world was “metastasizing” from its core to much smaller but strong offshoots such as AQIM, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, the al-Nusrah Front in Syria, al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as less-defined groups with growing operational capabilities in Africa and the Middle East.

Sources in the congressional oversight world that oversees the intelligence community cited classified briefings that stressed how many of the offshoots were driven by local agendas — such as AQAP’s desire to overthrow the pro-U.S. government in Yemen — but at times remained in contact with the al Qaeda core’s new central leader, Ayman al-Zawahri. The Egyptian doctor who succeeded bin Laden is thought to be hiding in the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Former CIA Director Porter J. Goss described to Fox News in October how al Qaeda affiliates were “spreading out.”

“It’s sort of running across the map of northern Africa,” Mr. Goss said. “There are franchise activities springing up with different names. They basically are part of this loosely affiliated network. There’s a lot of money in it. There is a lot of dedication and commitment in it.”

The civil war raging in Syria has added to the complexity. In one sense, developments in the war suggest that an emerging cadre of Sunni Muslim extremists are eager to use Syria as a base from which to launch attacks elsewhere in the region, similar to the way al Qaeda in Iraq showed signs of doing in the mid-2000s.

In another sense, there is evidence that Syria’s war simply may be pitting smaller al Qaeda-linked groups like the al-Nusrah Front, which is intensely Sunni Muslim, against Shiite Muslim extremist groups in the region — specifically Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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